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Formerly enslaved Catholic married couple are recognized as Underground Railroad agents

A headstone seen in an undated photo marks the burial site of the late James Madison Smith Sr. and Catherine "Kitty" Smith, formerly enslaved Catholics, in St. Louis Cemetery in Louisville, Ky. The free married couple are being recognized as agents of the Underground Railroad by the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service. (OSV News photo/Ruby Thomas, The Record)
A headstone seen in an undated photo marks the burial site of the late James Madison Smith Sr. and Catherine "Kitty" Smith, formerly enslaved Catholics, in St. Louis Cemetery in Louisville, Ky. The free married couple are being recognized as agents of the Underground Railroad by the U.S. Department of the Interior's National Park Service. (OSV News photo/Ruby Thomas, The Record)

By Ruby Thomas

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (OSV News) — The late James Madison Smith Sr. and Catherine “Kitty” Smith, formerly enslaved Catholics, are being recognized as agents of the Underground Railroad.

The Smiths, a freed married couple, are buried in St. Louis Cemetery in Louisville in a once-segregated section of the cemetery.

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service announced in late September that the Smiths’ burial site would be included in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Its mission is to “honor, preserve and promote the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight,” according to its website.

During the 1850s, worsening conditions for Black people in the South led the Smiths to move from Louisville to Jennings County, Indiana. Their farm — located about 29 miles from the Ohio River — became a shelter for enslaved people fleeing for freedom, said Deacon Ned Berghausen, who led the effort to recognize the Smiths.

Years earlier, James Madison Smith had purchased his freedom and that of Catherine Smith and they were married in 1837 at St. Louis Church, now the site of the Cathedral of the Assumption.

In a recent interview with The Record, Louisville’s archdiocesan newspaper, Deacon Berghausen said that historical records show the couple were part of a community of free and enslaved Black Catholics who worshipped at St. Louis. The community “supported each other in faith and the fight for freedom,” he said.

The Smiths “risked their lives for freedom for others,” said Deacon Berghausen, who serves at St. Agnes Church. “I think they were moved by the Gospel,” particularly the Gospel of Luke where Jesus Christ said he’s come to proclaim liberty to captives.

M. Annette Mandley-Turner, executive director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Multicultural Ministry, said she received news of the recognition with excitement because it’s what the Black community needs to help them “keep on keeping on.”

“We as a church will receive it as good news,” said Mandley-Turner.

The Madisons had “vision” and the kind of faith that helped many African Americans believe that “God would always be there to bring us through it no matter what,” said Mandley-Turner. “They (Smiths) had a life and they lived it as fully as they could, given the time.”

For Mandley-Turner it prompts the question, “If they could do that, what does it mean for us?”

She said the answer may be: “We have to keep on keeping on. We can’t allow what appears to be hopelessness to take away our dream.”

Deacon Berghausen — who is researching the history of Black Catholics and slavery in the archdiocese — agrees the Smiths’ story is good news.

“This is a story of freedom and a story of faith,” he said. “It’s a story about people whose story has been forgotten but deserves to be remembered and recognized.”

Starting in the late 1830s, the Smiths lived in downtown Louisville in a community of more than 1,500 free Black individuals. The city’s population was 43,000 and an additional 5,432 enslaved people lived in the city, Deacon Berghausen said.

James Madison Smith owned a hardware store in the city.

“I think of Madison, who owns this store in downtown Louisville without full rights,” and how individuals could have taken advantage of that, he said.

He noted that historical records describe a fight in the streets outside the store between James Madison Smith and another individual.

“You get a sense of why they’d have to leave for Indiana when things get too oppressive,” said Deacon Berghausen.

Though they left Louisville, the couple remained connected to the Black Catholic community.

Historical records show them returning to the city to witness weddings and baptisms of friends. The Smiths’ 23-year-old son, James Madison Smith Jr., died in 1868. He was buried in St. Louis Cemetery in the same plot as his parents, said Deacon Berghausen.

The couple also had a daughter, Mary Laurinda Smith, who became a well-known suffragist in Oregon.


Ruby Thomas is a reporter at The Record, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Louisville.


NOTES: More information about the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom is available at https://www.nps.gov/orgs/1205/index.htm.

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